After years of reading massive textbooks, hundreds of hours volunteering, an internship rap sheet so impressive Paris Geller would be jealous, and thousands of dollars spent on tuition and slightly less spent on your coffee addiction, you’re ready for a job in the real world. You’re excited and wide-eyed, ready to prove that you’ve got what it takes.
But if you find that for all your long days and rock-star presentations, you can’t shake the feeling that something’s not right and most days, you’re pretty sure you’ve swapped bodies with Andy Sachs from The Devil Wears Prada, you might be in a toxic workplace.
Dr. Jan Yager, a sociologist, workplace expert and coach, and author of Productive Relationships: 57 Strategies for Building Stronger Business Connections, has designed a short quiz to help you figure out if you’re working in a toxic environment. Be sure to look out for any of these signs at your next position, regardless of if it’s an unpaid internship, part-time or full-time position.
1. Is your boss erratic and hard to please?
One of the biggest telltale signs of an unhealthy work environment is a boss who is unsure of what he or she wants. If your boss is unable to clearly explain tasks and annoyed when you ask questions or, worse, when you fail, it might be time to reevaluate that relationship. Brandi Britton, district president of staffing company OfficeTeam, says, “A company’s leadership sets the tone—the overall corporate culture suffers if managers exemplify poor standards, such as failing to treat others with respect or not providing open and honest communication.”
Often, an erratic or difficult boss is one that also instills fear. If you or your colleagues are scared to ask questions or make mistakes, “this may be because management is cruel or dismissive of workers or has intentionally pitted workers against each other in the past,” says family therapist and yoga instructor, Justine Mastin. A fear-filled environment is one that hinders learning; it’s a sign that there’s no room for professional or personal growth within the institution.
How to Deal
One strategy for dealing with an erratic boss is to have all of your tasks and deliverables documented. Wilma Jones, author of Is It Monday Already?! 197 Tools and Tips to Start Living Happier at Work, says, “Work to set expectations and get as many directions and tasks delivered to you via email. If your boss won’t send the email, you send the email after receiving the task. Ask for confirmation to ensure you understand exactly what is expected and to use for cover in case of a dispute.”
Similarly, communicate in writing when the task is completed, noting any complications or follow-up procedures. Sadly, she says, “Often, this is a situation where you have to learn to manage your manager.” With any luck, your manager will grow to appreciate your commitment to excellence.
Related: 7 Things Your Boss Wishes You Knew
2. Did the company make promises when you were first hired that have still not been fulfilled? For example, you were hired to replace someone else but that other employee is still doing your job.
Failure to uphold their end of the hiring agreement is an early sign that your workplace may not be entirely ethical. Furthermore, an organization that makes few attempts to boost employee morale, through formal or informal recognition, probably doesn’t value its workers. It’s difficult to remain passionate about the job you’re doing if you feel like your efforts are undervalued or, worse, like you don’t serve any purpose at all.
How to Deal
As a precaution, it’s imperative that you read your job offer and job description carefully before accepting a new position. Assuming you’ve done that and you still feel like you were misled, you should discuss your concerns with an HR professional at your workplace sooner rather than later. There might still be room for negotiation, and you can get a better grasp of what your role should be. If you are dissatisfied with the response, or lack of response, at least your concerns have been properly documented should you end up changing jobs.
3. Does your boss expect you to regularly work evenings and weekends without additional compensation? Or, if you are an unpaid intern, does your boss ask you to work way more hours than you initially agreed upon?
Putting in extra hours is a great way to showcase your work ethic and make a good first impression on new employers. But if you feel forced to work late nights and weekends without compensation on a regular basis, this might be cause for concern. Britton explains, “In toxic environments, work-life balance may not be a priority, leaving employees overworked and unable to attend to things outside of the office that matter to them.” If you can’t seem to stop worrying about work, even when you close your eyes at night, it’s time to check in with your manager or HR.
How to Deal
Approach the appropriate person—an immediate supervisor or HR representative, for example—about your current schedule. Explain that you have been logging way more hours than you are being paid for and explore options for support. If your company is unable to compensate you for the hours worked, they may be able to cover other expenses like travel and dining. If you are working on a time-sensitive project that requires you to work longer days, discuss the possibility of taking one or two personal days after the project is completed.
4. Do you feel like you are unable to share new ideas with your boss or that your ideas are often dismissed without consideration or valuable feedback?
Complacency in the workplace is not always a sign of lack of enthusiasm from workers; sometimes, it indicates a lack of encouragement from upper management. According to Mastin, you know you’re in a toxic workplace if “management and other workers are reluctant to listen to new ideas and are not interested in innovation…even if innovation could be more effective. In fact, they aren’t interested in listening to their workers’ ideas in general.”
The result is a severely demotivated staff with little to no interest in the success of the company. You worry that your talents are being wasted away sitting behind a desk doing exactly the same thing day in and day out.
How to Deal
“If you don’t feel safe to experiment and test out new ideas, you’ll reach a stalemate, both personally and professionally,” Lauren Cook, professional speaker and life coach on the psychology of happiness, says. She recommends finding other outlets for creativity in your life. “Keep painting, playing tennis or listening to music. Continue to do whatever sparks your creativity, even if you're not able to apply it currently towards your work environment. It will still keep your brain in that space for enlightened ideas to come more naturally,” she explains.
That doesn’t mean that you should stop voicing your opinion at work altogether though. Psychologist and licensed clinical professional counselor Dr. Nikki Martinez says, “If you have a boss who is always negative [about your input], thank them for their feedback, let them know you will incorporate it and take it to heart, then ask what strengths they see in you that you can build upon. This may help them change their frame of reference and line of thinking when talking to employees.” Sometimes, you might be surprised by what changes you can actually influence.
5. Do you find yourself wondering, “What was I thinking when I accepted this position?”
Workplace depression can be crippling not only to your productivity but also to your socialization. “You start isolating yourself from everyone else and there is such a lack of connection within the working community that you put up your white flag,” Cook says.
If you’d rather get into a minor car accident than make it to work in the morning, HR consultant Mikaela Kiner says that’s a pretty obvious sign that your workplace is toxic. And soon, your negative feelings will spread to other areas of your life, adversely affecting your personal relationships and overall livelihood.
How to Deal
Try to find the good in the situation. Identify skills that you’ve developed since working there—even if they were self-taught—that’ll be beneficial in future roles, like conflict resolution or negotiation. It’s also a good idea to start actively working on a contingency plan, either for a new job elsewhere or for an internal promotion. Update your resume and keep your eyes open for new opportunities.
6. Does the human resources department report to your boss so that you are unable to lodge any justified complaints about him/her?
HR professionals should maintain some level of autonomy and you should feel safe talking to them in confidence, especially if you believe your work environment is toxic. If you recognize that members of the HR department function primarily as extensions of an erratic or difficult boss—for instance, they share your grievances without any concern for anonymity or retaliation—this is a sign that you should seriously reconsider your future at the company.
What’s worse is that when employees distrust HR, they talk among themselves instead. Mastin explains, “A toxic environment breeds gossip. Due to the fear and secrecy, everyone is left to wonder about the truth and starts to create their own. This gossip tends to be negative and adds to the overall negativity of the environment.”
And speaking of HR, a high employee turnover rate is also a red flag. Mastin warns, “A toxic environment will burn through workers quickly—there’s probably a reason they’re leaving.” A quick look at a company’s HR policies will often reflect its corporate values; be wary if these do not match your own.
How to Deal
If you can’t speak to your boss and you can’t speak to HR, the next best thing you can do is make the most of a bad situation. Although you can’t control everything, you can always control your reaction. Britton says, “Try to remove yourself from the negativity by staying professional and focusing on what you need to get done. Don’t fall into the trap of being part of the problem.”
According to Dr. Yager, “If you answered yes to just one or two of these questions, your work situation might still be salvageable. However, you will need to make a concerted effort to better cope with, or try to reverse, the negative situations at your current job. If you answered yes to all of the above questions, you might want to start dusting off your resume and, discreetly, begin a job search now.”
Other signs that you might be working in a toxic environment include: you dread going to work every day; you witness a lot of tension at your office and people are often crying or yelling; and you are constantly afraid of doing something wrong.
Sadly, Britton says, “Sometimes toxic environments can’t be resolved. Ask yourself two key questions: What do I stand to gain by remaining in the position, and can I adopt coping mechanisms that will enable me to manage through difficult situations? Your answers will help you decide whether to stay or pursue other opportunities.”
As best as possible, try to remain positive and professional. Remember that toxic workplace situations often force you to develop useful skills like adaptability, teamwork and problem solving that will help you land better positions in the future. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.